Netflix takes on the mystery of flight MH370: will it be found?

The calculated flight path of MH370.
Photo: Jeff Wise

Nine years ago, MH370 took off on a clear, moonlit night and flew into the unknown. Somewhere over the South China Sea, 40 minutes into the red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, it disappeared from the radar screens. None of the 239 passengers and crew were ever seen again. Conventional thinking is that the pilot had decided to commit mass murder and suicide by crashing into a remote corner of the southern Indian Ocean. But key aspects of the case went unexplained, including the plane’s final resting place, and search officials have long since given up on trying to determine what happened. Officially, the MH370 is a cold case.

However, the urgency to solve the mystery remains. It’s disturbing enough that a state-of-the-art aircraft can vanish so completely off the face of the earth; it’s even more disturbing that authorities, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars to conduct a search and self-declared near certainty about where it must have gone, failed to locate the 200-foot plane.

I’ve followed the case obsessively from the start, appearing on CNN to talk about it and writing about it in this magazine. I dug deep into the evidence for a 2019 book, then spent several years working with the producers of a three-part Netflix documentary series, debuting this week. I hope that while the passage of time has lessened public interest in the case, it has also dispelled the fog of wild claims, giving us room to consider the evidence with greater clarity. Far from being a dead end, the MH370 still offers several leads worth exploring. It is important that we follow them.

A strange U-turn
One distinguishing aspect of the flight is that it got more and more weird as it progressed. Everything was normal when it departed from Kuala Lumpur. Forty minutes later, the plane went electronically dark and disappeared from air traffic control screens. Still visible on military radar, it made a hard U-turn and flew west towards India. Three minutes after leaving radar coverage, the satellite communications system, or satcom, turned back on. For the next six hours, the satcom periodically broadcast signals that would later give investigators vague hints about the plane’s trajectory.

Photo: Netflix

It was weeks before the Australian government announced to the public that its scientists had solved the mathematical riddle of those transmissions and calculated the plane’s final resting place in the southern ocean. The implication was that the plane’s captain, Zaharie Ahmen Shah, must have taken the plane. But after years of searching in the area and far beyond, they found no trace of the hull on the seabed, a turn of events they labeled “almost unthinkable” in their final report.

Where’s the plane then?
To many people, the failure of the search seemed unsurprising. After all, the ocean is a big place. But the searchers’ failure was actually mind-boggling. The data they worked with was accurate and the math well understood. Sending the plane into the Southern Ocean yet landing somewhere outside the search area would require a sequence of events ranging from vanishingly improbable to downright impossible.

Struggling with how this could have happened quickly takes you into unfamiliar territory. Most people, and the search authorities themselves, prefer simple, normal-looking explanations. And if you just look at the big picture, there are simple, normal theories that seem convincing. But once you start examining the evidence in more detail, the simple theories start to develop holes.

The weirdest part of a weird mystery
To me, the big underappreciated red flag of the matter is the fact that the satcom was turned back on. I have yet to meet a 777 pilot who, prior to MH370, had even heard of the critical device, a box called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU. As it turns out, the procedure for turning the SDU off and back on is not included in the pilots’ emergency checklists, but instead requires advanced knowledge of the aircraft’s electrical system. Of all the many theories that have circulated about MH370, none contain a plausible explanation for why anyone would want to mess with it. Yet this inexplicable event gave rise to the signals on which the entire search for the seabed rested.

What we can say now is that whatever happened to MH370, it must have been very strange. As the years have passed, even more baffling clues have surfaced, such as data from the captain’s home flight simulator (first described in this article) suggesting ambiguously that he may have practiced flight to the southern ocean. However, the range of possibilities is not infinite. Researchers have numerical data generated by known physical processes. This data does not come out of the blue. Theories corresponding to this may be correct; theories that don’t don’t have to be.

As I struggled to understand the anomalies of the case in the first few months after the disappearance, I realized that some unusual details of the plane’s electrical configuration could point the way to a solution. As I explained in a New York Journal article eight years ago, if hijackers tampered with the SDU to create a false electronic trail for investigators, the implication would be that the plane wasn’t headed south after all, but headed north to Kazakhstan. The only possible perpetrator of such an operation would be Russia, which at the time was in the process of capturing Crimea from Ukraine and benefiting from the world’s attention. I then admitted that my theory is something of a wild ride, but it has yet to be disproved. The default hypothesis is not the only option.

What else we can do
The good news is that there are positive steps we, the public, can take to move this matter closer to a resolution. For starters, we can urge the Australian government to reopen the investigation and make a serious, transparent reckoning of where its assumptions have gone wrong. Second, we can pressure the Malaysian government to finally release all the evidence in its possession, including the full set of military radar returns showing the plane’s last known track.

It is clear that the authorities have been embarrassed by their failures so far. The easiest thing for them would be to leave everything in the past. But too much is at stake – both for the relatives of the disappeared and for the flying public, who have a right to know that their plane will not disappear spontaneously. As I hope the Netflix documentary makes clear, there’s an uncomfortable hole in our seamless network of global transportation. We must do everything possible to find out what happened.

MH370 is not a legend. It’s real and science can find it.

Leave a Comment